Friday, May 27, 2011

Bard on the Beach Next Generation

My cover story for this week's WE looks at the next generation of Bard on the Beach.

From left: Charlie Gallant, Amber Lewis and Ryan Beil will be spending another summer getting paid to work at their “dream job
From left: Charlie Gallant, Amber Lewis and Ryan Beil will be spending another summer getting paid to work at their “dream job": Bard on the Beach.
Credit: Doug Shanks

COVER STORY: Centre Stage

There are three things that Vancouverites can count on every summer: panic that the rain will never stop; panic over the two weeks of blistering heat; and glimpsing the next generation of the city’s most promising thespians at Bard on the Beach.

Over the course of its 22 years, Bard has cultivated a reputation as one of the best theatre festivals in Canada, and one of the most challenging training grounds for any actor. They offer four Shakespeare or Shakespeare-related works every season (this year’s offerings: As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Henry VI War of the Roses, Richard II) on the Mainstage and Studio Stage with two casts divvying up the productions. The company’s comprised of a loose core of established veterans who permeate Vancouver’s professional theatre scene, but it also features some relatively new faces. You may not know their names yet, but you will.

With a few seasons already under their belts, Ryan Beil, Amber Lewis and Charlie Gallant are laying the foundation to become the next generation of Bard powerhouses, following in the footsteps of innovators like Meg Roe, Alessandro Juliani, Kim Collier and Colleen Wheeler, to name a few. WE sat down for an informal round-table with the young trio to discuss their love of Shakespeare, behind-the-scenes shenanigans and the summer-camp vibe.

Tell me about your first season with Bard.
Ryan: I’d been trying to get a place in Bard for four or five years, from theatre school until I had a successful audition process. I’d grown up in Vancouver watching this so it was definitely a career milestone my first season and, I don’t know, just the discovery of what an amazing event it is. What an amazing gig to get to come every summer night. Mind-blowing, cool, career milestone. There you go. (Everyone laughs)

Amber: It was amazing. It was really a dream come true in a lot of ways, because it’s an outdoor production and there are amazing people to work with. People lined up every single night to see the show and it was sold out houses. It was an honour.

Charlie: For me I was at theatre school at Studio 58 and I’m from New Brunswick and so coming out here, all I heard from all my theatre friends was “Bard on the Beach is this fantastic festival! It’s amazing, you gotta go. The Shakespeare productions are incredible!”... Then I was in a show in January of my graduating year in 2007 and Christopher Gaze came to see it, as well as Dean Paul Gibson, and they gave me an audition based off my performance in that show. And, I was lucky enough, as soon as I was done theatre school, to jump into my first paying job, which was Bard on the Beach, which is — I didn’t know how cool that was until maybe a couple years later, but nonetheless, I was still kinda dumbfounded that I was working and getting paid for it! (Everyone laughs)

Is there an associated pedigree with Bard you wanted to attain?
Ryan: Certainly I think Bard employs the best actors in the city, if not this half the country or the entire country. I absolutely feel there’s a pedigree and a level one would like to get to.

Amber: I definitely see it in the rehearsal room. I’m still fascinated watching everybody’s work. Sitting there going, “My God, this is amazing!” To get to see actors work through things, lose lines, and try to find those lines, it’s a fascinating process and every one is so fantastic at what they do.

Why did you want to do Shakespeare?
Charlie: Even in high school, I was always obsessed with Shakespeare, I don’t know why. I think it began with a book I had to study in grade 11 or something like that. I don’t know what play it was we were going through, but it was a really good passage, a really good monologue. It might have been Richard II and I was just so captivated with all these things that I’m now learning as an actor that you have to endow Shakespeare with. You have to use what he’s given you as well as — you know, ’cause it’s poetry but how do you speak it, how do you do all this other stuff? At that time, I didn’t have the tools to read it, but at the same time, when I would read it in my head, it was just fantastic stuff. It was saying things I could never, myself, conceive how to express that. That carried through 10 years until finally I was able to have a chance to act it.

Ryan: It’s a multi-faceted challenge for an actor to try to achieve, number one, the extraordinary language, the beautiful crazy amazing wordsmith that Shakespeare was, to tackle that, but then the stories themselves are so compelling, when you finally get into them. The characters are three dimensional, flawed and everything and all of that is seen from beginning to end. Fusing all of that is the ultimate challenge.

Amber: Like Charlie, when I was in high school, I just always connected to Shakespeare. I didn’t know what it meant — like, I would speak the lines and I wouldn’t exactly know what I was saying, but I felt cool saying it. (Everyone laughs) And then later on, through theatre school, I realized there was a freedom in the classics, but specifically Shakespeare. Because of the heightened language and the potency of the words that he uses — we don’t have the vocabulary they used to back then, so there’s a freedom there. As actors, we open our bodies and have, hopefully, an athletic approach to playing in a big space, and then we get to embody this language we would never speak on our own.

Was there an intimidation factor coming on board? Who were you most intimidated by?
Amber: I actually find Ryan Beil kind of intimidating.

Ryan: No! (Laughter from everyone)

Charlie: Yep, I found Ryan Beil intimidating.

Ryan: Well, I’m intimidated by both of you guys. (A chorus of “awws.”) So, what was the question?

Was there someone that intimidated you at Bard, or a veteran in particular you wanted to learn from?
Ryan: I could listen to veteran actors talk about their careers and what they think until the cows come home. I’m big into that. I think it’s a profession where you get better at it, learning from others as the years go by. Those years of experience, to have some of it wash off on me, was pretty incredible. I was just intimidated to hold up my end of the bargain.

Charlie: The first couple days, I didn’t really know anybody by face yet, ’cause I hadn’t seen a lot of them in person before. I hadn’t introduced myself. It was just so evident from the first time we had the table read on day one, who the veteran actors were. I could have closed my eyes. You listen to their voices and how they handle the words and how they connect with it. It’s a slap across the face of like, ‘Yep, these guys are the top,’ you know? And then you realize they’re incredibly friendly, so the intimidation factor sort of went away. It becomes about, well, I was hired, this is the level, how do I not stick out like a sore thumb? (Everyone laughs)

Amber: I felt sort of insecure and then having to talk to myself, like, ‘Okay, you just have to pretend that you belong.’

Fake it til you make it?
Amber: Yeah, exactly. That kinda works. The artists in the company, I mean everyone has strengths... For me, it’s looking at different artists and trying to absorb some of their individual magic.

Are you still considered “youths” as it were?
Ryan: I hope so.

Amber: That would be nice.

Ryan: Every year there are newer people coming in, but I consider myself a youth in the world of theatre and acting. I would still call myself a rookie.

Charlie: I do, mainly because I still feel like I’m replaceable within the company. Vancouver’s a big place, and there are incredibly talented actors who could be my double at times... I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve fought my way back into the company for my fourth year. That keeps me feeling young. Or something. (Laughs)

Ryan: And it’s easy to be hungry for Bard.

Amber: It’s easy to not get in as well. Every year we audition... It’s still competitive.

What has been your silliest Shakespeare moment? It hasn’t all been perfection, I’m assuming.
Ryan: No, my first year I was dressed up — this isn’t the moment  — but I was dressed up like a little boy in a sailor suit and a blonde wig. That in itself is kind of silly. But David Marr was dressed up as my mother, and there was a ball of yarn and knitting sticks involved and there was a rake and a lollipop, and somehow in the confusion we’re all supposed to come together and run away and the twine got around the rake, so we couldn’t drop it and the other actor had to pause and negotiate twine off a rake as he was trying to hold the emotion in his face and his voice, the anger. But everything we did drove the audience to more laughter.

Charlie: Since it’s Bard on the Beach, things can happen that are very funny off stage. The tent is open, you can see outside. One night in Romeo & Juliet, as people got killed off, they had to stay onstage facing out into the night. It was dark and some guy came by with his dog, it was a little pug, and it had a necklace on that would glow and flash, so you could follow where it was going and we have fences around the site that are green, so at night you can’t see them. This dog is just running around, having a great time, yelping, its owner’s having fun with it, and then it suddenly runs into the fence and ‘grrrrrrrrr!’ the whole fence shakes and makes this noise and then this little red thing just stops and falls sideways and there’s like seven of us just staring out looking at and the shoulders start going up and down from laughing. Things outside can effect us on stage because of the outdoor environment.
Ryan: Yeah, like when a party boat goes by and you’re doing a serious scene and it’s like, ‘Can you dig it, Vancouver?!’ Othello’s just found Desdemona dead and there’s a DJ swearing into a microphone.
Charlie: And, within half a second Christopher Gaze is out on the rocks waving his fist.

In my mind, this is like an adult summer camp.
Amber: Does that mean, like, we all get naked together? (Laughter from everyone)

Ryan: ’Cause then yes. Yes.

Bard on the Beach begins previews June 2. Tickets and info:


My review of Hairspray is in this week's WE.

Andy Toth (left) and Jennie Neumann in Hairspray.
Andy Toth (left) and Jennie Neumann in Hairspray.
Credit: supplied

STAGE REVIEW: Hairspray thins out its wild roots

In 1984, John Waters’ Hairspray unleashed a full-bodied Ricki Lake onto the world as Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” teen who defies conventional beauty standards when she scores a spot on the local dance program and successfully leads the charge towards racial integration in early 1960s Baltimore by jiving with her “negro” friends on TV.

It was, and still is, Waters’ most mainstream film, and became a huge cult favourite thanks to its campy humour, political themes and subversive nature. Brimming with weird life and quirky joy, it was just begging to become a musical. That it went on to become an eight-time Tony Award-winning Broadway hit was unexpected by many, but Hairspray (the musical) has quite a bit in its favour: catchy songs, strong themes and Waters’ eccentric foundation. (In a lovely bit of third-generation Hollywood incest, the musical spawned its own big-budget, mainstream film adaptation in 2007.)

But the Arts Club’s Hairspray is so perfectly polished, so devoid of Waters-esque wackiness ­— it borders on sterile. The cast is great, the energy’s unflagging and everybody’s having fun, but, save for a few blissful moments, where’s the wild, loose whimsy? Why has Waters’ (admittedly) residual influence been scrubbed clean?

It might be partly due to the casting of its lead, Jennie Neumann. Her Tracy is delightful and sunny, and Neumann has plenty of charm, sparkle, and a great voice (as evidenced in the earworm of an opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore”) But only in the pages of Vogue could she be described as “pleasantly plump.” Every joke made or insult hurled about Tracy’s heft (and there are many), feels increasingly hollow. It flies in the face of my feminist principles to take issue with an artist’s appearance, but in a show like Hairspray — in which the lead’s stature is a key plot point — casting a relatively thin woman weakens an important element of the script’s social commentary. It effectively blanches Waters’ original intention of using size and race to upend social stigmas.

Director Bill Millerd’s other casting choices prove more inspired. Alana Hibbert packs a punch as Motormouth Maybelle, the black DJ and TV pioneer, particularly during her soaring, show-stopping number “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Robyn Wallis (Penny, Tracy’s dim-witted sidekick who ends up in a forbidden interracial romance) is a compelling actress who makes interesting and quirky choices, standing out even when she’s in the background. J. Cameron Barnett’s moves are absolutely mesmerizing as Seaweed, the loose-limbed dancer who’s only allowed to strut his stuff on Negro Day. He and Anderson have a delightful chemistry and their characters’ romance proves far more engaging than Tracy winning the hand of dance show dreamboat Link Larkin (Adam Charles).

Millerd bestowed the iconic role of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, to veteran funny man Jay Brazeau. Unfortunately, the Vancouver-based actor (who strapped on a girdle to play the role in Toronto six years earlier) was felled by a minor stroke prior to opening night. His replacement, Andy Toth, acquits himself well and has a wonderful stage partner in Laurie Murdoch, who, as Edna’s adoring husband Wilbur, conveys genuine love and affection for his buxom, anxiety-ridden wife.

Although a fun frolic, Hairspray seems content to entertain without engaging. Some will be satisfied by its constricted charms, but like the Turnblad women, I’m a big girl. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.

Hairspray runs to July 10 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville), 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. $29-$69 from and 604-687-1644.

Fitz & the Tantrums

My interview with Fitz & the Tantrums is in this week's WE.

Fitz & the Tantrums
Fitz & the Tantrums
Credit: supplied

Fitz & the Tantrums a modern fairy tale

In Los Angeles in 2008, Michael Fitzpatrick was just a guy writing songs on an old church organ. Now, three years later, he’s the lead singer/songwriter of retro-soul outfit Fitz & the Tantrums, a band that’s had a dizzyingly quick journey from DIY indie upstart to headliner, selling out shows across North America thanks to the success of their first full-length album, Pickin’ Up the Pieces and its irresistibly catchy lead single, “Moneygrabber.” Fitzpatrick spoke with WE over the phone on the road in L.A., giving us his account of this rock ’n’ roll twist on the classic Cinderella story.

WE: There’s been huge momentum for you the last few years.
Michael Fitzpatrick: When we started as a band, our whole foundation was a do-it-yourself approach. Nobody was really giving us the time of day in any shape or form. We just hoed our own road and started playing out before we even had songs to play out. And just really developed our own fan base organically. In L.A. there’s not really a music scene. There’s an industry but not really — it’s not like a Boston or a Chicago that’s such a music town. But we quickly caught on with people, our live show, and just released the record on our own and just kept plugging away by ourselves.

Has it been this way since you started?
One of the things about this band is it’s just had this magic around it since the outset. Even from the formation of the band, a lot of times it can take a lot of phone calls and trying out people to find the right people in the band and this was literally the five people we called and that’s the band that’s here today, which is never the case. And each one of these guys is a true talent in their own right. And there’s something that’s magical happening when you put the six of us together on stage or in a room or in a studio. I think we had played 10 shows when Flogging Molly, the Irish punk band, bizarrely enough asked us to go out on the road with them. We had played 10 shows and we were standing out on the stage at Red Rocks in Colorado, one of the most famous venues in all of America, in front of 10,000 people just going, “how did this happen?”

So, did that launch you to your next big break?
Adam Levine, from Maroon 5, was going to get a tattoo from his favourite tattoo artist in New York City and the guy had found out about us through our NPR station in L.A., Googled it and bought the record. So, when Adam walked in, he said, ‘Adam, you gotta hear this new band. Fitz and the Tantrums is my favourite new band in a long time. Adam hears it and apparently Adam doesn’t like anything and he flips out and a week and a half later we’re opening for Maroon 5 on their college tour two falls ago. It’s just been one crazy opportunity like that after another. At the same time, we were a do-it-yourself band, self-financed, self everything. These were really amazing opportunities as well as major stresses for us [like], “how are we even going to pull this off?” We can’t say no to Maroon 5, but to go out on the road following a major act like that costs a lot of money. It was really, for every one in the band, putting their blood, sweat and tears and personal sacrifice into making these moments happen.

When did it start to turn around?
We went to SXSW that year and somehow got on the short list of being one of the buzz bands of that year, whatever that means. Everyone congratulating us and yet we were broke, outta money, outta resources. Sort of at the wit’s end of what we could do on our own. And, having a minor coronary in the process. We had played a show for Dangerbird Records the last night of South By and then flew home and the label president asked me out to coffee the next day and said, “You know, I just believe so much in what you guys have done on your own, you didn’t wait for anyone to give it to you, you just went out and took it. I want to be in business with you.” That was a huge change for us. As a band, we had to all of a sudden not be completely in control of our destiny. We had partners now that we had to be in line with. But, at the same time, we went from being the band and two managers to a whole team of people which was really incredible. The record came out last August and it just kind of caught fire. We got lucky! We were invited to do Jimmy Kimmel, and Carson Daly, and Conan, and just all these amazing opportunities one after another. It culminated with us going out on tour this past January. We called it the Coldest Fucking Tour Ever. We literally were in every coldest city in America following Snowpocalypse as it was named by the news outlets. Never a day above freezing. No roadies, no nothing, doing three shows a day... But we were able to sell out the entire tour pretty much.

How did SXSW go this year?
We were able to go to SXSW this year being the sort of fairy tale story, what SXSW really should be about: discovering unsigned artists, not just ego-stroking and releasing of bands that already have a record deal’s albums. That was a really cool moment to come full circle and come back to the SXSW community and Austin and people so happy that that kind of story can still exist within the constructs of SXSW. It’s just been a wild ride. For me, personally, every single dream has come true. But, at the same time, it’s a lot of work.

What’s your background?
I was always a singer, my whole entire life. I went to a high school for the arts, studied singing. Went to college and figured I’d study film, decided I’d have the genius idea I’d study experimental film. There’s a real industry and a lot of job opportunities for that! (Laughs) And that’s where I met one of my band mates, James King, our saxophonist, and put together my first college band, went into the studio and I recorded my vocals and that was the first time I heard my vocals with the rough takes, with the mixer and what the engineer was doing, and I was hooked. I pretty much called my dad and said, “I know you just paid for four years of college for film-making, but I’m going back to my one true love, which is music.”

Did he support that?
I grew up in an arts family. My dad used to be in arts education and then worked in museums, so I was very, very fortunate to have parents that back the idea of being an artist. I could tell you he regretted it in my 20s when I kept coming back to him for handouts because I couldn’t pay my rent that month, but it’s all paying off now, in theory. (Laughs)

What music did you listen to as a kid?
I grew up with parents who were classical music freaks. And opera freaks. And my dad’s kind of a fascist. When he’s home, you can’t listen to anything else in the house. So the one concession I could get driving to school in the morning was I could talk my mom into putting the oldies station on. That’s where I first got introduced to soul music. And, as a singer, just the harmonies and background vocals, I just loved it and I loved the emotion of the songs. To this day, hands down, it’s my favourite period of production. As a student of songwriting, I’m obsessed with what makes a song great. It’s the magic behind what makes for a catchy song, where before it’s even over you’re already singing along. Just to me those songs were some of the best examples of that. One of the secrets is background vocals and hand claps. That’s a sure way to have a hit song.

Fitz & the Tantrums plays Monday, May 30 at Venue (881 Granville), 8pm. Tickets $17 (RC, Z).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kim Cattrall

My interview with Kim Cattrall makes up part of our summer movies package in this week's WEVancouver.

Dustin Milligan and Kim Cattrall.
Dustin Milligan and Kim Cattrall.

SUMMER MOVIES: Kim Cattrall hits the motherload

If you’re best known for your work as oft-naked glamarama Samantha Jones on Sex and the City, gaining 20 pounds to star as a washed-up porn star is enough to garner headlines and media attention. But Kim Cattrall’s reasons for signing on as the titular star in writer/director Keith Beardon’s debut feature, Meet Monica Velour, run more than skin-deep: she wanted to show the broken reality of the woman starring in 18-year-old Tobe’s fantasy, right down to the ways she debases herself in order to get custody of her young daughter. The award-winning actress/author spoke with WE over the phone about intimidating her teen co-star, Dustin Milligan, feminism and Juno as right-wing propaganda.

Monica seemed like total character immersion.
It was. It was a complete immersion for me. That was the only way I could do it. I couldn’t do it, take it off, and go home. I was Monica. I just saw a take that we did behind the scenes, I saw it on the DVD, I’m interviewed as Kim between takes, but it’s not me. It’s Monica. To get out of it — it was just easier to stay right where she was. It felt like in a lot of the scenes that Dusty and I were just playing jazz. It felt effortless, free and surprising... he’ll follow you anywhere, he’s that kind of actor. He’s really open. He just turned 18 when we did it and he’s still fresh. Keith asked me not to be very nice to him so he could remain slightly nervous and hesitant in my presence. We were nervous that he wouldn’t be able to act it, you know, ‘cause that’s a lot to ask. So I withdrew a lot which made him a little edgy, exactly what Tobe needed to be.

So you wanted to keep him slightly intimidated by you the whole time?
On his toes! Because Monica’s like that, you just never know when she’s going to strike. One minute she’s banging on his door, next minute she’s fixin’ him a drink, then she’s crying in his lap, I mean this woman is all over the place. She’s in real, desperate measures. And you just sort of — she’s not predictable and that’s what makes her exciting to play... Within the first 10 minutes of their meeting, she rolls him! Keith said, ‘Is she really going to take it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. He won’t know, he’s drunk. She needs the money. She. Needs. The. Money.’ She has to pay the lawyer to get the kid to go to Oregon. That was really, in my mind, what allowed us to go to all those other levels. I don’t think there’s a human being alive, who’s sane, that doesn’t understand a mother fighting for her child.

That really hooks into the character’s motivations of her and her child surviving.
When [her ex-husband] says, ‘You’re not going to see her until she’s 21,’ that was an improvised line, and I gotta say, my stomach just sunk. Can you imagine not being able to see your child?... And, when Tobe turns up with the daughter, you just want to scream, like ‘No!’ It’s the worst nightmare, because she’s caught. This kid, who’s her john, is kidnapping her child? To be able to do that scene, with the stakes that high with what [Beardon] wrote, to say, ‘Look at me. This is reality. Not your fucking fantasy of what a woman is. This is what a woman is.’ And, she’s that woman, whether she’s a PR executive on Madison Avenue, or in a trailer park in Indiana. There is that — that misogyny really — going on. Whether you’re Sarah Palin or Hilary Clinton, women are being victimized, just because they’re women. And a lot of women just let it happen. I don’t want to be that kind of woman.

Why are people so uncomfortable with women’s sexuality?
‘Cause it’s powerful! So powerful! It’s boundless. Maybe it’s just as simple as we can have more than one orgasm, I don’t know. (Laughs) Maybe for men that’s pretty daunting. They need us, and we have the power, but we don’t take the power. Nature has separated us simply in the form, and this is, well, it’s sperm! We’re all fighting for the best sperm... They’re already terrified and we’re fighting amongst ourselves, so what does that lead to? Loss of power, marginalization. Look, I work within it, I’m not just complaining about it, saying ‘Poor me, I’m a feminist, blah blah blah.’ I try and do something about it, and sometimes it’s just about educating young women about some things, and they may not like me for it, but it’s the way it is. Taking roles like this are exciting to me, because it’s talking about it in a very real way. It’s not demonstrating. It’s saying, ‘Look, this is what it is. What do you think?’ ... In some ways, I’ve waited my whole life to do a speech like that. The fact that a man wrote it, I think it’s fantastic. And then you look at like, oh God, what was that film, about the girl who keeps the baby? Ellen is in it.

Juno, thank you. What does that say about women? She goes to an abortion clinic and I mean, is this a right wing piece of propaganda, that you go to an abortion clinic and they treat you like shit? I mean, c’mon! Really! I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but why’d it have to happen like that? It kind of left a bad taste in my mouth.

Mike Mills and Beginners

My feature with Beginners writer/director Mike Mills is in this week's WEVancouver cover story.

Writer/director Mike Mills (right) with star Ewan McGregor on set in Beginners.
Writer/director Mike Mills (right) with star Ewan McGregor on set in Beginners.

SUMMER MOVIES: Mike Mills stays close to home with ‘Beginners’

The last decade has been something of a turning point for writer/director Mike Mills. Around the turn of the century, his 75-year-old father dropped two bombs: he was gay and had terminal cancer. These revelations formed the basis for Mills’ second feature film, Beginners (opening in Vancouver on June 24), one of the summer’s most buzzed-about indies.

“My dad passed away in the fall of 2004 and I started writing it after that,” Mills says, over the phone. “Before he died, I knew I was trying to figure out some way to talk about this, even beyond him being my dad... I feel like I was so unfinished with the information that was given to me by the time my dad passed away. I wanted to process and I wanted to remember. You know, my family was based on this very deep paradox and that left a lot of questions bouncing in my head.”

Those questions make up the majority of Beginners’ narrative, which follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he tries to come to terms with his father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) death. Four months later, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), which forces him to confront a lifetime of emotional baggage.

“Me and my dad talked about love, like real conversations about love, what really happens, and it got much more argumentative,” Mills recalls. “He didn’t just buy what I said on first blush, you know, he challenged me more about what I thought was possible and real in relationships. The script kind of became a continuation of that conversation about relationships and love from this generational divide, my dad being born in ’24 and my being born in ’66. And, from straight to gay orientation, across that divide.”

Mills was struck by McGregor’s ability to negotiate the emotional architecture — in part from those conversations between Mills and his father — of Oliver’s construction, ultimately turning in a performance that’s both raw and charming.

“Ewan’s the funnest, easiest, most down-to-earth collaborator I’ve ever worked with,” Mills says. “He’s great. But, as an actor, especially as a straight male movie star kind of guy, he’s so willing to be vulnerable. So willing to have real emotions and really be present in the scene with the other actor. He does all that without being broken or neurotic or dysfunctional, it’s just a natural part of being a human which was like, my dream for that to happen.”

That’s also part of Mills’ clever, empathetic script, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, tiptoeing carefully between the sweet and sentimental, the haunting and hilarious. This construction, and its visual execution (Mills is a graphic artist) is part of what makes the film feel so fresh: the viewer sees, in bits and pieces, all the memories that — as in real life — inform Oliver’s decisions. In particular, it’s Oliver’s memories of his father’s remaining years — out, happy, in love — that spark his reckoning.

“Before my dad came out, he felt pretty stuck,” Mills says. “Sort of the last thing you would expect from him is that he would be so hungry, you know? And so much more vital, and that he would risk so much with his kids and his community, and then with the guys that he loved or the guys that he wanted to be in the community with. You risk a lot when you love somebody... That willingness to risk [and] change really surprised me.”

Mills also maintains that even though the film is rooted in real-life events, it’s overall a work of fiction, a distinguishing characteristic his father appreciated.

“My dad was an art restorer and he knew about art, he knew how people take from their lives,” Mills says. “My dad was a man who fictionalized himself for a very long time. He knew a lot about the sort of shape-shifting that goes on with like, perception and who you are. I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t telling the all-encompassing, final version of my father. I’m telling one angle, one perspective, one slice and this film is so small, comparatively. That’s the main truth: a film is like a little island in a very big sea.”

The film’s subject matter naturally lends itself to melodrama, but fuse that with Mills’ personal connections to the story and few could have blamed him if Beginners slipped into overwrought art-house territory. Mills admits that his biggest fear was that the film would be seen as self-pitying or narcissistic.

“I think part of the big help, honestly, was having gone through a bunch of therapy,” he laughs. “It’s not so secret or personal or private. It’s not anything I’m ashamed of. So I can be pretty loose and un-precious about it. I don’t really want a portrait of myself. I want to exploit things that I know in a very firsthand, concrete way, to make the story more grippy and contagious. Even my dad, I wanted to exploit the facts of his biography and the real nooks and crannies of his story that I knew about, but in the end, it had to be a story. It was kind of easy for me to steal from myself and not worry about it too much. I think. Maybe I’m totally deluding myself.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Neko Case

My feature on Neko Case is in this week's Charleston City Paper.

For Neko Case, dry-witted music is a breeze 

A songwriter with tough optimism

Case is, quite literally, a force to be reckoned with, as virtually everyone who has ever seen her perform live can attest. Her most recent album, the aptly-named 2009 alt-country beauty Middle Cyclone, is her strongest yet. An urgent, lushly orchestrated effort, its imagery, appropriately enough, evokes some of nature's richest tricks and treats. Fittingly, Case describes nature as "the closest relationship I have." The album brims with life, building so much momentum that the record reaches its conclusion well before you're ready for the experience to end. But Case dismisses the notion of a grand plan on her part in sweeping the listener from start to finish.

"Not my intention, so much as a lucky accident," she says. "I can hope for it, but that does not mean it will happen, but I try as hard as I can to steer it that way."

Case's primary co-pilot for this album wasn't another musician, but rather Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard, whose books served as Case's main influence while crafting Middle Cyclone. The two share a similar writing style: dry, bemused wit mixed with genuine admiration and appreciation for nature and history. Each is plainspoken and concise, but can craft sentences that are emotional, vivid, and layered with subtext. In fact, one of the best lines Case has ever penned can be found on this album, her haunting alto promising, "Next time you say forever, I will punch you in the face." Blunt and beautiful.

It is a style that has become Case's trademark, made all the more poignant when matched with her soaring vocals. If she and her songs seem a curious paradox of tough-yet-tender, well, it's because that just might be who she is. She has excellent survival skills, having left home at 15, eventually winding her way from Tacoma, Wash., to Vancouver, B.C., to attend art school when she was 24 years old. She's been an artist, a drummer, a go-go dancer, and likely a vast assortment of other jobs that never made it onto the press releases.

When asked if she experienced a lot of rejection early, Case acknowledges she had, and it wasn't easy, but maintains she faced something much harder.

"Poverty," she says. "That's always the ball-stomper. Some days it hurts, some days it doesn't." It's this kind of weariness that infuses Case, and her lyrics, with that core of strength. It's evident on her first album, 1997's The Virginian, but it wasn't until 2002, following the release of her third album, that Case's career paired traction with speed.

"People started coming out in larger numbers after Blacklisted," Case recalls. "That's when I got a second of being on the radar."

Simultaneously, Case was also finding success as a quasi-member of the Vancouver-based power-pop band the New Pornographers. Case has recorded and toured with the band off and on since their 2000 surprise indie hit, Mass Romantic. In fact, she's spent a substantial part of the last year touring with the group in support of its fifth release, 2010's Together. She's also one of the most sought-after vocalists in the industry, wracking up more guest spots than most rappers. But the majority of her moonlighting is reserved for a select group.

"I work with people I know, if I have time, which these days is seldom," she says. "[The New Pornographers, Sarah Harmer, the Dodos] are family, and we already spend a bit of time together so it's a little easier."

Case's busy schedule seemed to take its toll when, citing exhaustion, she postponed a Charleston show last August. At that point, Case had been on the road for almost two long years. Now she's back, focusing on smaller tours, like this mini one throughout May.

She's rested, ramped up, and, as evidenced by her Twitter feed, ready and willing to raise a little hell. Chief among her most recent grievances: the Esquire article that demanded to know why Tina Fey, arguably the most culturally significant funny person of the 21st century, won't accept that she's "hot." Case, whose own looks have often taken precedent in the media, calls the situation "sad."

"Tina Fey has nothing to prove to anyone," Case says. "It's an undisputed fact. Why is 'hot' even discussed? It makes me depressed, which of course will make people say 'lighten up,' which then makes me more depressed because I can only begin to imagine how hard she works and has worked. She deserves better, all people do, men and women."

Allow another F-word to be added to the arsenal of Case adjectives: Freaking awesome.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sweet sounds of summer

My recommendations for outdoor concerts this summer is this week's WEVancouver cover story.

Gillian Welch hits the Vancouver Folk Festival this summer.
Gillian Welch hits the Vancouver Folk Festival this summer.

MUSIC: Sweet sounds of summer

Whether under the stars or beneath a sunny sky, there are plenty of reasons to venture outside this
summer for your music fix.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
May 27 at Malkin Bowl, 5:30pm. $32.50 from Ticketmaster

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings are the modern titans of retro-soul/R&B. Jones has sass to spare and knows her way around the most soulful of songs, and backing band the Dap-Kings offer bold bursts of brass and woodwind and down and dirty guitar flourishes. Plus, this is one of those rare concerts where everyone will definitely show up on time, since it’s pretty much a fact that opening acts don’t get more awesome than Austin-based vintage-blues/soul group Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. A sweet double bill.

Sam Roberts Band
May 28 at Malkin Bowl, 5:30pm. $35 from Ticketmaster

The Juno Award-winning indie rocker made Canadian music history with his best-selling independent 2001 release, The Inhuman Condition. Since then, he’s continued to woo fans thanks to songs that range the spectrum from social commentary to relationship stuff. His most recent album, Collider, hits stores this week, and has already received enthusiastic praise from critics across the country.

8th Annual In the House Festival
June 3-5 at various venues. Single tickets: $8-$13; 4-show pass: $25-$45; weekend pass: $65-$85

This unique and intimate festival transforms a selection of Commercial Drive houses and backyards into unlikely stages for cabaret, film, puppets, poets, theatre, and, yes, live music. So much live music — including local acts Company B Jazz Band, Aaron Malkin and folk-blues musician Buckman Coe.

TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
June 24-July 3 at various venues. Outdoor shows are free.

The 26th annual festival features over 400 concerts at 40 venues around town, and a bonanza of outdoor options for jazz, blues, funk, Latin, world and electronica lovers. There are over 150 free concerts, and plenty of outdoor options, including the opening weekend party in Gastown, which features local favourites Jasper Sloan Yip and Five Alarm Funk and the closing weekend party at David Lam Park, where you can catch Will Campa y su Gran Union, Jaffa Road, The Crackling and Gypsophilia.

Kid Cudi
June 16 at Deer Lake Park, 5:30pm. $49.50 from Zulu Records, Red Cat Records, Highlife, Ticketmaster

One of Rolling Stone magazine’s favourite rappers — seriously — Kid Cudi has made a name for himself thanks to his hit song “Day ‘n’ Night” and smart collaborations with Kanye West, Common and Chip Tha Rapper. He’s also turned his attention towards the small screen, starring in former rapper Mark Wahlberg’s new HBO comedy series, How to Make it in America. Plus, the prolific rhymer has promised he’ll be venturing into rock soon, so who could say no to a possible sneak preview of what that will sound like?

Black Keys
June 27 at Deer Lake Park, 5:30pm. SOLD OUT.

The Grammy Award-winning garage rock duo’s show sold out fast,and there’s a good reason for that: they are a damn good band and even better live. Apparently there won’t be any tickets made available the day of the show, so start scouring Craigslist now.

Vancouver Folk Music Festival
July 15-17 at Jericho Beach. $40-$165 from

The 34th annual folk festival has gotten decidedly more modern in recent years, but with over 50 artists and bands over three days, there is still something for everyone. Among the highlights: remarkable alt-country singer-songwriter Gillian Welch; famed singer-songwriters in their own right Roseanne Cash (daughter of John) and Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve); local solo artist and New Pornographer Kathryn Calder; and beloved Canadian alt-country super-group Jim Bryson and the Weakerthans. All of this amazing music against the backdrop of beautiful Jericho Beach? Well, even better.

Harmony Arts Festival
July 29-Aug. 7 at John Lawson Park, West Vancouver. Free.

West Vancouver’s 21st annual festival features art, cinema and nightly sunset concert series with some of the province’s best local bands. Among the main stage acts are the uncanny tribute band Nearly Neil & The Solitary Band; bluegrass/Celtic favourites The Paperboys; Afro-Latin dance band Tanga; and acoustic rockers Headwater. If booze helps you groove, the garden stage offers an expanded lineup with local alt-country rock band Dustin Bentall Outfit; Spirit of the West lead singer John Mann; and JunoAward-winning bluesman Jim Byrnes.

Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival
Aug. 13 at Deer Lake Park, 1pm. $55-$70 from Ticketmaster

The 12th annual festival makes it worth the trek to Burnaby by garnering some superstar wattage with alt-country Canadian crooner k.d. lang, who reminded us just how much we missed her last year with her haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the Olympics opening ceremony.

MusicFest Vancouver
Aug. 5-14 at various venues. $32-$42 from

The annual MusicFest features big name draws like Sarah MacLachlan and runs Aug. 5-14, but organizers have saved the best for last: the closing night concert at the beautifully sculpted VanDusen Botanical Garden. It’s a world music extravaganza with acclaimed Cuban jazz pianist Ernán López-Nussa and his trio, and 14-piece Danish outfit, Touché Vocal Jazz, which explores big band arrangements and swing with equal aplomb.

LIVE at Squamish
Aug. 20-21 at Logger Sports Grounds (39503 Loggers Lane, Squamish)
$79-$199 from

The outdoor festival promises to have found its feet in its second year, with on-site camping, better parking and a strong lineup with some local and international favourites, among them ’90s stalwarts Weezer; Canadian indie rock acts Metric and Stars; Australian roots-jam band John Butler Trio; and mash-up maestro Girl Talk. Plus, it’s a terrific venue to catch beloved local acts including Hey Ocean, Bend Sinister, The Zolas and Black Mountain.